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By TARA PALMERI, KENNETH P. VOGEL, JOSH DAWSEY and NAHAL TOOSI, politico.com; for the growing use of adjectives placed in front the once-honored (?)/respected (?) noun "diplomacy," see.
President Donald Trump spent much of a recent phone call with French President Francois Hollande veering off into rants about the U.S. getting shaken down by other countries, according to a senior official with knowledge of the call, creating an awkward interaction with a critical U.S. ally.
While the Hollande call on Jan. 28 did touch on pressing matters between the two countries — namely the fight against the Islamic State — Trump also used the exchange to vent about his personal fixations, including his belief that the United States is being taken advantage of by China and by international bodies like NATO, the official said.
At one point, Trump declared that the French can continue protecting NATO, but that the U.S. “wants our money back,” the official said, adding that Trump seemed to be “obsessing over money."
“It was a difficult conversation, because he talks like he’s speaking publicly,” the official said. “It's not the usual way heads of state speak to each other. He speaks with slogans and the conversation was not completely organized.”
The revelations about the unconventional call are only the latest in a series of leaked accounts of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders that are generating increasing doubts about the new president’s style of diplomacy at a time of global uncertainty. Diplomats and politicians across the spectrum and around the world are worried that Trump’s seemingly unstructured and personality driven approach to dealing with foreign leaders risks alienating traditional allies and emboldening foes.
Trump and the White House have so far brushed off the concerns, which spiked after reports emerged that he warned Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto that he might send troops to Mexico to clear out the "bad hombres down there” and that he argued with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a prior agreement with the Obama administration to resettle refugees from a camp in Australia, saying that Turnbull is giving him “the next Boston bombers.”
The White House has provided sanitized readouts, including of the call with Hollande, presenting it as a focused conversation with Trump expressing his support for NATO. "President Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and noted the importance of all NATO Allies sharing the burden on defense spending,” the release read. "The leaders also lauded our combined efforts to eliminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
A member of the National Security Council also pushed back against the senior official’s assessment of the Hollande call.
"This is mischaracterization due to the nature of the call," said an NSC communications aide. "They did discuss the issue of countries meeting their defense commitments under NATO. They agreed that was important that countries meet their goals." (France is among the NATO members who does not meet the target of 2 percent of GDP to be contributed to the alliance’s defense.)
The spokesperson also did not elaborate on why Trump brought up the topic of China with the French president.
Trump also defended himself at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, telling the crowd, “When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”
But there are plenty of people worried about it.
"This is not the way you lead our country,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, said of the Mexico and Australia conversations. Warner added in a brief interview that he remains concerned about Trump’s combative calls with foreign leaders.
Veterans at the State Department are also worried about Trump’s brash style in dealing with world leaders and his early forays into foreign policy.
The phone calls to foreign leaders from France, Germany, Mexico, Russia, and Japan during Trump’s first week in office came with little guidance from the State Department, angering some at the agency, which is accustomed to briefing presidents extensively on geopolitical currents before the calls happen.
State Department officials say there’s little respect at Foggy Bottom for Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, where longtime foreign policy hands find themselves simultaneously frustrated and relieved by the fact that they are limited in their ability to go out and try to clean up Trump’s diplomatic mess because of all the vacancies at the department.
Still, not all of Trump’s phone calls have gone off the rails.
The trick to a good call with Trump is less about policy agreement than personal chemistry, said two people familiar with some of the world leader talks.
For example, New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English began his Sunday evening call with Trump by thanking the president for taking the time to talk during the Super Bowl and chatting about New Zealand golfer Bob Charles, said someone briefed on the call. The person said that set the tone for an amicable conversation, even though English went on to express disagreement with Trump’s executive order restricting travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
And, when the politics and the personalities mesh, the calls can become mutual admiration societies, as was the case with Trump’s call during the transition with Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic.
Zeman is a hardliner on both immigration and Iran, and he and Trump found common ground on those issues, but also hit it off personally in a big way, said a Czech political operative briefed on the call.
Trump told Zeman "you're my type of guy," and invited him to the White House repeatedly during the course of the conversation (a visit was subsequently, but tentatively, scheduled for April). “We expected it to go well, but it was surprising how well it went. The chemistry was very good,” said the Czech operative.
There is intense speculation in diplomatic circles about how Trump’s off-the-cuff style may have played out during a call last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is considered America’s top geopolitical foe, but for whom Trump has had kind words. The White House released only a brief anodyne readout of that phone call, and so far, few additional details have been disseminated.
As for the calls that did result in either leaks or unpleasantries, State Department officials have been struggling to manage the fallout, according to an agency official.
Normally, this person said, any change in foreign policy — or discussions on the calls — would be heavily vetted with experts and senior department officials. "These are usually the most orchestrated of affairs," this person said. "They aren't orchestrated like that anymore."
This person said "what really bothers you about this administration is they don't care about the experts and what we've done here for decades. I don't think they trust us for anything."
For the most part, American officials in embassies around the world have had to refer to the White House when asked about policy direction or the president’s verbal lashes. Because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was confirmed just days ago -- and a slew of top posts at the department remain unfilled -- most U.S. diplomats simply don’t have much guidance about what to say to their counterparts. The State Department’s public affairs division has yet to hold its traditional daily press briefing under the new administration.
One U.S. diplomat mentioned avoiding doing a Q&A session at the end of a recent public appearance overseas to escape the likely volley of questions about the new president. When speaking to counterparts, the diplomat has been counseling patience, assuring them that things will likely improve once Tillerson appoints his subordinates and conversations on issues ranging from trade to security can resume in full.
The challenge, the diplomat noted, is that foreign leaders’ patience will run out, especially in places which are facing important elections of their own in the next year or two. Those countries include Mexico, France and Germany, where the relationship with the U.S. is already a campaign issue.
The Trump disruption “becomes a bigger story than it otherwise might be because it’s political season,” the diplomat said. “It’s the kind of thing you can manage for a week or so, but the story isn’t really going away.”
Since taking over, Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has spurred hope within the Foreign Service that he will be a stabilizing force. His first day was spent meeting or speaking on the phone with several of America’s closest allies: the foreign ministers of Germany, Mexico, and Canada, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the days since, Tillerson also has spoken to counterparts in Australia, South Korea and Japan, as well as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
The State Department has offered thin readouts that nonetheless was reassuring to U.S. diplomats: “In all of his conversations, Secretary Tillerson stressed America’s steadfast commitment to its key allies and partners as it works to protect the interests and safety of the American people.”
He has his work cut out for him, though. According to the State official, the department is "on edge more than I've ever seen it, and I've worked here for more than two decades." Officials have even begun communicating covertly with each other, afraid the administration will listen in on them.
This person said that more people wanted to sign the dissent memo blasting Trump’s recent executive order on refugees and immigrants, which ultimately attracted the signatures of nearly 1,000 State Department employees. But the official said there "was confusion on how to sign it, and whether it was going to cost you your job."
"We're hoping Tillerson helps figure it out,” the State Department official said. "We don't know much about how he will do, but I think everyone is glad he's here.”
Elana Schor contributed to this story.